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Ershad gone, yet not gone

Published : Friday, 8 December, 2017 at 12:00 AM Count : 99

Parasites live on others. Similarly, our fallen military dictator, former Army Chief and President Hussain Muhammad Ershad is also surviving. Lastly, as PM Sheikh Hasina's brief less Special Envoy, he draws salary and benefits from the state coffer. Many say, and maybe rightly, that PM Hasina offered Ershad this role to keep him and his Jatiya Party chained to the incumbent government. This is at least partly true if not the whole truth.
In between his wife Roushan Ershad, who has lived her life tenuously and often painfully with this macho man of 'extraordinary talents' -- ruler, writer, golfer and a self proclaimed poet with multi fiancées and several wives (it is alleged), something which Roushan scoffed at and her prime task emerged as making her husband, a member of parliament and JP's co-chairmen, a loyal home maker and spouse in the showcase. Yet, Ershad sustained his military guts, including hair and moustache cuts that probably still attract women to the octogenarian young man! Meanwhile, love flows unstoppable, it is widely said.
But the curtain on his nine years of military rule (as CMLA and then President) fell on December 6, 1990, when unlikely allies Awami League and BNP headed by 'arch rivals' Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, respectively joined force at least once in life to oust him. But it was not totally their own credit or of the people's but it happened only when Ershad's loyal army lost faith in him - and were disgusted over his 'womanizing', 'false' claim of being a poet (it is alleged) and also of being bestowed with a son at the blessing of a self-proclaimed saint (who was a media house owner at that time).
Besides, Ershad's life beyond the barracks was full of mysteries and all that said about him by his friends and foes are some true and some lies.
But he has had many qualities as well. He is extremely tolerant to women, especially his wife Roushan, let her take the centre stage in JP politics, get elected herself as a lawmaker and then rise to the position of the Leader of Opposition in the parliament. It was possible because the main opposition BNP of Khaleda Zia boycotted the 2014 election, also did poorly in the previous poll and earned a bad name by making the war criminals her ally and trying to defend them against trial and punishment. Meanwhile, the ruling Awami League with overwhelming majority in the current parliament chose Roushan as leader of opposition to fill the vacancy.
What happened to Ershad and his party then?  After his ouster as Bangladesh President was announced, a night of countrywide jubilation followed with all sections of people participating in what looked like the freedom of caged birds. It was indeed so. As international journalists we had to submit all reports to a PID cell for scrutiny during the Martial Law imposed by Ershad, senior journalists like veteran Ataus Samad and we his prodigies protested this but in vain. The reports must be cleared at PID to be aired or printed. It was a suffocating time.
At that time I was working in the global news agency Reuters in Dhaka -- and I saw that every day in morning and evening an army intelligence officer (major) was sitting in the room of then Reuters bureau chief Atiqul Alam, gossiping and updating information on whole day happenings. Ershad, the golfer, lover and poet subjected journalists to such hardships and mental torture.
But when Ershad was dethroned, among the thousands chanting and dancing at the city's Malibag square around midnight of Dec 6, 1990, I discovered two familiar media faces - Gias Kamal Chowhdury of BSS (then also working for VOA) and Shehabuddin Ahmed Nafa of Bangladesh Times. It was simply a night of madly jubilation.
Words spread like wildfire that a plane with escort jets had been kept ready to fly Ershad and his family out of Bangladesh, Another group opposed the idea and said he should be given a safe stay in Bangladesh -- which ultimately did happen. Then came up the question as to whether law requires Ersahd to deposit gifts (cash and kind) that he had received as CMLA and President during foreign trips or from abroad to the State Treasury. However, I am not sure what really happened to them.
While the nation was celebrating, Hasina and Khaleda were preparing to grab power, some journalist "chamchas" of Ersahd - who received huge benefits and favour from the fallen dictator -- were very saddened. But they mingled with the mainstream population soon.
In December 1990 Ershad, the longest serving military ruler in Bangladesh, had lost his power but neither before it nor afterwards he distanced himself totally from politics or gave up hope for a comeback -- which, except himself everyone considered a fool's dream.  Keeping Roushan and his own brother and trusted lieutenants scattered here and there within politics and even having planted a few planted in the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as ministers, Ershad reconfirmed his shrewd move in the national power circuit. And as Bangladesh is closing on the next parliamentary election in a year's time, he has already started his famous "jack & hide" game sniffing at major parties AL and BNP and at any other emerging groups for a berth.
In the last election held in 2014 which the BNP boycotted allowing AL a virtual walk over to a second consecutive five-year in power, Ershad dwindled like pendulum of an wall clock between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia for being their ally, if not a partner. For reasons unknown, Khaleda did not repose her trust on the man who once, as military ruler, granted the widow of General Zia, founder of the BNP, a posh house almost free of cost inside the Dhaka Cantonment. She thankfully lived there with her two sons -- and pursued politics from there -- until the AL government ousted Khaleda from that house a few years ago.
That turned the BNP and its Chairperson Khaleda into worse enemies of Hasina -- in which Ershad remained susceptibly unpredictable like a "parasite" in Bangladesh politics. But, political analysts said, surely he will test his market price ahead of the coming election. Last time he sided with AL after a series of drama including landing himself in the Dhaka military hospital for "treatment" and in return won the job of Sheikh Hasina's Special Envoy.
Many other politicians of much higher stature and wider repute like Dr Kamal Hossain, the country's constitution writer, and Dr Badrudduzza Chowdhury whom Khaleda, as prime minister, fired as President of the country have gone virtually lapsed into political oblivion. But Ershad, the man who played the toughest game in the army, as president and later as leader of JP still survives well. He also has many followers, "lovers" if not admirers, because of his lavish lifestyle, access to both AL and BNP and unending penchant for power. Ershad still expresses his desire to become President of Bangladesh once more to change the country for the better.
He criticizes the government for failing to control corruption and abuse of power though everyone knows he himself was the pioneer of introducing both the vices in Bangladesh. But trying to cover his bad things, Ershad formally made Islam the state religion in this overwhelmingly Muslim country. This was not because of his love for the faith, but to show up himself as a saintly man.
Ershad is still a valued coin with two distinctive sides in Bangladesh politics -- and perhaps shall remain so as long as Awami League and BNP remain at logger-heads and main contenders for power.

The writer is Executive Editor, the Daily Observer

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